Excerpt, Frontiers of Faith:
From 1997 to 2000 I wrote a comprehensive, fully documented history named Frontiers of Faith: A History of the Diocese of Sioux City. The book contains 475 pages of text, 1637 endnotes, and an extensive 35-page index. Many people, including Bishop Daniel DiNardo of Sioux City, have stated that it is the most readable history they have ever experienced. Below is one of my favorite sections, pages 147 to 151 of Chapter 4, "The Immigrant Church in Northwest Iowa, 1870-1887." It is reprinted with the permission of the Diocese of Sioux City.
Daily Life During the Formation of Parishes
Many factors of day-to-day existence in the pioneer period affected the faith life of the early Catholic pioneers, their children, and the priests and religious. By today's standards their age seemed rudimentary, dangerous, and toilsome. However, those who lived through the period and chronicled their times rarely mentioned specific hardships. They perhaps did not feel that the difficulties they faced were noteworthy. Perhaps to us now, their lives were heroic. At any rate, sufficient social history of the plains in the era has been recorded to enable some understanding of the way they lived, and how it affected the growth of Catholicism.
Most immigrants came through Ellis Island in New York, or through New Orleans, where they were required to verbalize their names to immigration officials. The accuracy of the spelling of names depended upon the immigration worker, or the persistence of the immigrant, so that cousins such as Thomas Lenihan and Bartholomew Lenehan might end up in their new country with different legal surnames. Most immigrants destined for Iowa reached the state by some combination of railroad and riverboat. At places along the Mississippi, those with money obtained teams of oxen and wagons. Others walked west. Most early wagons had no springs, and the bumpy ride was often worse than walking. Soon after embarking into the prairie, it became obvious to travelers that wetlands and streams were the most difficult obstacles. Many were the letters and diaries that contained lines such as the one written by Father Philip Laurent to Bishop Mathias Loras in 1854, "My trip to Muscatine [from Council Bluffs] was disagreeable, but as you are accustomed to seeing the stage get stuck in the mud and break down, you will dispense me from recounting the details..."337 Wading through mud and fording the many creeks and rivers was tedious and often dangerous. On the way west the cumbersome and heavy wagons basically became moving homes, since the journey took so long. Some had cook stoves in the middle with smokestacks protruding through the cover of the wagon.
Upon arrival in northwest Iowa the rush to build shelter was on. Many settlers, such as the Bohemians near Pocahontas, lived in lean-tos or upside-down wagon boxes until they could build a home on the plains.338 They used the running gear from the wagons to carry sod or logs for homes.
For priests, arriving at home parishes did not mean that the traveling was done. Some pastors spent as much time traveling to other towns as they spent at their own rectory. They often arrived at missions sweaty, tired, dirty, wet, sun- or wind-burned, mosquito-bitten, or chilled. Mosquitoes, especially, were an enormous bother during the summer months and during certain times of the day. They thrived in the many marshy puddles and pools that one encountered, often by surprise, on long walks or rides.
The work in providing food, water, clothing and shelter for families was endless. Candles had to be made for light and soap for washing. Pioneer ladies in their late years were known to correct people that brought up "wash day." They said it was "wash days," since doing laundry took at least two days of the week. Clothing was made or repaired by hand. Water was carried from the source to the house. Corn, meat, flour, and other staples were often homegrown and processed. The work around the house in warm times was usually done by the wife and younger children of the family, while the men and older children labored to plow the land, plant and harvest crops, and tend to livestock. In the winter, most household tasks doubled in difficulty and duration and, most often, all pitched in.
When the orders of sisters arrived to teach at the parishes, their number often included a homemaker. Without the many conveniences in use in the present day, preparing meals and keeping up a residence was a strenuous and time-consuming job.
Mothers in the home usually took responsibility for the faith life of their families. They taught the children prayers, and heard their prayers at night. In the absence of religious leaders they supervised First Communion instruction and regular catechism. And they ensured that the laws of the church were followed. They often employed practical means, such as covering the drinking water pail with a clean dishtowel on Saturday nights as a reminder of the complete fast until after the Eucharist on Sunday.
The lack of wood made heating a home difficult. Cow, buffalo, and oxen chips were valuable fuel. Prairie grass was braided for burning, but was time-consuming to form, and burned fast. Later, when corn became the primary crop, corncobs became an abundant fuel for homes. Homes, rectories, convents, and churches had to be watched closely due to the constant threat of fires escaping the stoves.
In the autumn, as the prairie grass dried out, prairie fires became an immediate and constant threat. A careless campfire, the smoldering discharge from a gun, lightning, or fires set on purpose to make firebreaks, all could begin unstoppable fires that were capable of consuming entire towns. The people of Emmetsburg suffered such a setback when a prairie fire consumed all their collected building supplies for their new first church.
Health was difficult to maintain, and doctors were not immediately available. Sickness came from bad water, prevalent dirt, poor nutrition, lack of clothing, cold weather, and mosquitoes. Malaria and diphtheria were particular threats to children and the infant mortality rate was high. Whole families and households were often quarantined in battles against infectious diseases. Many children died without baptism, and many Catholics died without the consolations of priests and sacraments though the priests of the era made heroic efforts to reach the fatally ill.
One of the first apportionments needed in a settlement was a cemetery. If a Catholic died in a settlement before a parish cemetery had been established, the person was buried in unblessed ground. The remains were sometimes moved when Catholic cemeteries became available. Near St. Benedict, Iowa, Martin Rahm and his wife suffered the loss of five infants and buried them in a small family plot near their homestead. In 1883, when Father Gahr instituted the parish and blessed a cemetery, the bodies of the five Rahm infants were exhumed and moved to a single grave in St. Benedict's cemetery.339 In 1888 at Rock Valley St. Mary's, George Forge's remains were removed from the public cemetery, and he became the first interred in the new Catholic cemetery.340 Many other situations such as these existed as towns and parishes became established.
The pioneers were much closer to death than people in the present day. Before the valuable service provided by funeral directors, deceased family members were laid out in homes for final respects. Mourners had to be gathered quickly, and funerals and burials expedited, when corpses were not embalmed. In cases of disease and violent deaths, all family members might have experienced the calamity first hand. One story described two pioneers frozen to death on a road between Carroll and Roselle during a sudden snowstorm in 1870. The bodies were taken to a residence and put on planks in front of a fire. The resident of the house said, "Frequently, as their bodies thawed, they would move, and a good many times that long night my hair stood on end."341
By nature of their work priests were particularly susceptible to death on the frontier. They gravitated to the sick, often contracting disease. They most often ignored weather conditions in the name of the sacraments. They worked long, hard hours, and in most cases, ignored their own welfare in favor of caring for their people. By the end of 1887 at least seven priests had died during their ministry in northwest Iowa, and at least three of them were in their forties.342 Any priest entering the frontier must have realized that his distance from the comforts and aid of civilization reduced his chance of surviving a serious injury, or physical or mental illness.
On the frontier a person's role in any particular moment was determined by necessity. With a serious injury and no doctor available, a farmer might become a physician and set a broken bone. With no priest available on Sunday, a woman with extensive knowledge of the bible might become a preacher. When a baptism or last rites, or both, were needed for a sick one, a family member might have attempted to administer the sacrament to the best of his or her knowledge. A priest was often a carpenter; a sister may have taken care of pastoral duties in the absence of the resident priest. Physicians, when on hand for sickness and death, were asked to say prayers over the ill or deceased person.
On the treeless and trackless sea of grass, navigation could be tricky. People and priests meeting for Mass on Sundays had to set out early, and may have arrived well before or well after the Mass began. Some people measured distance by tying a handkerchief to their wagon wheel, and counting wheel revolutions to determine where to turn. Wooden poles or rocks were positioned in view to mark some trails. The pioneers rarely followed straight paths, but instead sought high ground to avoid encountering swamps.343
Bells were popular and necessary instruments in parish and school life. Many churches and schools, especially later ones, included bell towers to call worshipers and schoolchildren into the buildings. They rang joyfully during festive occasions, called routinely for daily prayers such as the Angelus, and tolled somberly for the dead. Parishes considered the acquisition of a bell to be a noteworthy event in their history. The bell installed in Marcus' Holy Name Church in 1898 was nicknamed the "John" bell for Father John O'Reilly, the pastor, and parishioner John Jungers, who had helped raise the money for it.344 The bell at Manson St. Thomas was inscribed with the somberly prophetic words, "Unto the church I do call you-Death to the Grave will summon all." The bell at St. Thomas was one of the few items, as in many parishes, to be used in the new church when the original building was replaced.345
Priests, like legislators and those platting towns, had to make judgments of where a town might develop and grow. While it was a general rule that towns thrived at intersections of trails, on rivers, and on railroads, such was not always the case. The growth of towns was unpredictable. Considering the difficulties, the pioneer priests of northwest Iowa did a commendable job in identifying not only the towns and areas that had potential general population growth, but also the places with potential for substantial Catholic settlement.
Since Sunday was the day in the week when work was, for the most part, set aside, it became a popular social day, too. Before and after Mass, adults and children who had been craving social interactivity visited, laughed, and exchanged ideas and verbal support. The arrival of a visiting priest was important to them beyond the benefit of the sacraments. He brought news of other settlements and parishes. He assisted parishes in determining their status and their potentiality in receiving resident priests. Oftentimes priests took advantage of the gathering of Catholics for Mass and conducted fundraisers afterwards for the parish. Church fairs and bazaars, plowing-, crop-planting-, barn-raising-, or harvest-bees, parish dinners, bake sales, rummage sales, trap shoots, barbeques, bonfires, dances, and other methods of raising money and having fun were instituted from the earliest times.346
Those who immigrated to northwest Iowa as pioneers gravitated toward people of like nationality, yet on a deeper level, to people of the same nationality and religion. They were strangers in a strange land. English was a mystery for many, as were plains winters, badgers, prairie grass, horses, pigs, and plows. It was vital to find someone that could advise and answer questions about the new farmland. Most parishes had someone similar to the grandfather of Monsignor Edward McEvoy. Monsignor McEvoy remembered,
He was one of these people not entirely content with just farming. [He started] the first co-operative creamery in [Palo Alto] County…later…he was responsible…for starting the Farmers Mutual Insurance Association…[and] drove all over the county, seeing many of the new farmers; the Swedes, the Danes, the Norwegians… [He] became somewhat of a counselor to many of these people new to the country…none of these people had any knowledge of corn, the growing of corn, till they came there.347
Naturally, the social gatherings after Sunday Mass were important for the establishment of mutually beneficial relationships of business and friendship.
337Father Philip Laurent to Bishop Loras, Council Bluffs, July 25, 1854, copy in ADSC.
338From the "Statement of Significance," National Register of Historic Places, Section 8, form page, of the register of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Pocahontas, Iowa. The Statement is on file with the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
339St. Benedict Parish, 1877-1977 (Lake Mills, 1977), page 24.
340"Mass Offered Before Rock Valley Established," The Globe, April 28, 1977, page 4F.
341Sam Todd, "Story of How Roselle Pioneers Died in Raging Storm Retold," Holy Angels Parish, 1874-1974 (Roselle, 1974), page 59.
342Priests who died prior to 1888 while serving the future Diocese of Sioux City, their parish and age at time of death (if known): John Marsh (Fort Dodge Corpus Christi, 47); John Concannon (Boonesboro Sacred Heart, 46); Matthew Norton (St. Patrick's-on-the-Lizard); Michael .J. Gaffney (Storm Lake St. Mary); John Fendrich (Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 63), Theodore Wegmann (Roselle Holy Angels, 43), and Lawrence English (Sioux City St. Mary's).
343"The Diary of Mary Alice Shutes" gives an excellent description of pioneer travel over the prairies. Her family migrated from Ohio to Carroll County, Iowa in 1862. Her diary is printed in Prairie Voices: Iowa's Pioneering Women (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996), edited by Glenda Riley, pages 72-112. Of the family's trek north of Carroll, she wrote, "Pa had been over this route last year so knows how to go. They are really trails or little more than wheel tracks from one high spot to another. This prairie grass has never seen a plow. It is State Road No. 4 from the map, and is marked. It wanders from one high spot to another to keep out of the sloughs. It was not surveyed that way of course." (Prairie Voices, pages 108-109)
344"Holy Name Church Cost $300," The Globe, April 28, 1977, page 2G.
345History of St. Thomas Parish, 1885-1966 (Manson, 1966), page 12.
346Much of the information on the social history of the plains was taken from Everett Dick's The Sod House Frontier, 1854-1890 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1937). Also included is information taken from the The Globe's 75th Anniversary of the Sioux City Diocese issue, and individual northwest Iowa parish history books.
347Monsignor Edward McEvoy, 1986 interview transcript, ADSC.
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© 2002 Rick Roder